Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: How Mizzou could (and must) get the best from Michael Porter Jr.

A few warmup dunks by Michael Porter Jr. at McDonald's All-American Game

A selection of Michael Porter Jr. dunks from pregame warmups Wednesday before the McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago. Porter Jr. has committed to play college basketball at Missouri.
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A selection of Michael Porter Jr. dunks from pregame warmups Wednesday before the McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago. Porter Jr. has committed to play college basketball at Missouri.

Michael Porter Jr. is so new to Missouri basketball that coach Cuonzo Martin can’t even talk about him publicly yet because the nation’s No. 1 recruit has yet to officially sign.

But already, we know a few things. Porter Jr. is wildly talented, drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant and Paul George. He dates a Disney actress, said two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry can’t guard him, and that he wants an upperclassman to give up his jersey number.

We know, in other words, that Martin may have his hands full. Porter Jr. is the most important thing to happen to Missouri basketball in years — decades? — and Martin could have a very good problem to deal with in his first season.

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“Once he signs that letter, I can talk all night long about him,” Martin said in a visit with The Star this week. “That’ll be extended conversations.”

New University of Missouri Tigers men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin visited Kansas City on Wednesday and discussed his whirlwind start to the job, his plans and vision with Kansas City Star sports columnists Blair Kerkhoff, Sam Mellinger and Va

Martin hired Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant, and even if that’s largely seen as a package deal to sign his son — a time-honored tradition in college basketball — it could also be smart business.

Because Porter Jr.’s talent is such that we may end up seeing 21st century Mizzou basketball in two parts — before Porter Jr. and after Porter Jr. At 6 feet 10, he is an impossible matchup in college. Too big for guards, too athletic for bigs, too skilled for virtually anyone who will defend him next season.

But that only works if he’s a wildly talented basketball star drawing comparisons to NBA stars, and not a wildly talented basketball star who demands to be treated like an NBA star.

This is where Porter Sr. comes in.

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“A genuine man,” Martin said. “… A genuine person, a good man. To me, that’s very important because when you build a quality staff, yeah, you want to recruit players, and that’s the lifeline of what we do as a staff and program, but there has to be a guy who understands what it means to help a young man, regardless of what background, where he comes from.”

Porter Sr.’s $375,000 salary and position can be seen by cynics as a quid pro quo to land his son, but he could end up being the most important coach on the payroll.

Because the circus is coming to Columbia, and everyone there knows it. Multiple people in and around the program are using that word already, in preparation for a kind of national and daily attention that Mizzou basketball hasn’t had in years — maybe ever.

The natural worry is that the pieces won’t quite fit, that the attention and offensive possessions demanded by Porter Jr.’s talent won’t co-exist with a program trying to climb its way up the Southeastern Conference.

Newest Missouri men's basketball commit Michael Porter Jr. opened up about pressure and his desire to make Mizzou Arena thrive again Tuesday at the United Center in Chicago, where he will play in the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday eveni

In each of the last eight years, Rivals’ No. 1 recruit has gone to Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, or UCLA. It’s often easier for top recruits to go to established powerhouses, generally surrounded by more talent, and coaches who are the biggest stars.

This is where Ben Simmons’ name often comes up. Simmons was actually Rivals’ No. 2 player in the 2015 class, but eerily similar to Porter Jr. in some ways — a certain lottery pick with a diverse set of skills that can play at least four positions, headed to a program that doesn’t often land such talents.

Simmons played one year at LSU, leading the team in (deep breath) points, minutes, field goals, field-goal attempts, free throws, free-throw attempts, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and turnovers. LSU lost four games in November, and five of its last eight, missing the NCAA Tournament and declining a spot in the NIT.

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Simmons was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but LSU’s season was, by any definition, a failure.

Porter Jr. will be in a better, and certainly more comfortable, place at Mizzou. He grew up in CoMo, spending countless hours at Mizzou’s basketball facilities as his aunt coached the women’s team and his father was an assistant.

More than that, Mizzou has important infrastructure already in place to help Porter Jr. and the program be the best versions of themselves for what will probably be their only year together.

Much of that comes with Porter Sr. Even setting aside his basketball chops, and opportunities at other programs, it makes sense to have the father so close to the program.

Who better to have in the travel party, and as an omnipresent filter for media and agents who will be asking for time and inherently offering short-term endorphins that have little or nothing to do with Porter Jr.’s preparation for the NBA or the team winning in the SEC?

Porter Sr. presumably knows his son better than anyone, as both a young man and basketball talent. He should be the first to spot any sign of distraction, and the best to point out areas for improvement.

Five things to know about Mizzou basketball recruit Michael Porter Jr., the nation's top-rated player in the Class of 2017.

Martin is specifically qualified here, too. He’s seen this up close, at every stage of his life. His high school teammate, LaPhonso Ellis, was a high school All-American and the No. 5 pick in the 1992 draft. His college roommate, Glenn Robinson, was the national player of the year and the No. 1 pick in the 1994 draft.

At Cal, Martin recruited and coached Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, each ranked by Rivals as top 10 players in the 2015 class. Brown was the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft, and Rabb is expected to be a first-round pick in this summer’s draft.

Martin has seen all sides of this, in other words. He knows what it’s like to be young and talented, and the structure required to keep he and Ellis and Robinson focused. And he knows what it’s like to be a young and talented player’s coach, and the challenges that exist in trying to simultaneously get the best out of a player and team.

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Martin has won everywhere he’s coached — a conference title at Missouri State, and NCAA Tournaments at Tennessee and Cal. But he hasn’t won quite as much as many have demanded. Ugly fan unrest pushed him away from Tennessee, and his last two Cal teams lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and NIT.

Martin has never had a player as talented as Porter Jr., who has never played a season as challenging both physically and mentally as he should expect in the SEC with much of the college basketball world focused on him.

But this isn’t as simple as it may look on the surface. Porter Jr. is doing more than going back to the place he calls home. He’s going to a place that in some ways is uniquely positioned to draw out his best, give him a platform to prepare for the NBA, and hopefully provide a boost of excitement that can last after he’s gone.

Missouri commit Michael Porter Jr. reacts to winning MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday at the United Center in Chicago.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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